Sometimes, though, having a crackerjack policy staff just doesn't matter. Not in a world where Republicans have, for instance, instituted a permanent filibuster, requiring 60 votes on absolutely every measure; blocked routine appointments, by the handful, over nothing; and, of course, giddily forced the country to the brink of default over raising the debt ceiling.
That attitude is already apparent in the debt committee, to which Republicans appointed inflexible ideologues including Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona.
Kerry has run smack up against all this, time and again. He was tasked with ushering the nuclear-reduction New START treaty through ratification; what would have been a cakewalk in most eras became a months-long, brutally contentious affair when neoconservatives and talk-show gadflies — led by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, posing tough for his presidential run — made nonsense claims warning of virtual surrender to the Russians.
Kerry ultimately won that battle, but he lost one in 2010 when he could not pass the environment-and-energy bill, dubbed "Cap and Trade" by detractors. Speaking to the Phoenix a few weeks before that legislation officially died, a clearly frustrated Kerry complained that many of his fellow senators were simply not listening to reasonable argument. "It's purely political," he said of the lack of votes for passage. (See "Burn Baby Burn," Talking Politics, July 28, 2010.)
That frustration appeared again in a phone interview this past week — at roughly the same time that Republican House Speaker John Boehner was holding a press conference utterly rejecting Obama's jobs and deficit proposals.
Deficit reduction, Kerry says, "can only happen if you have reasonableness and compromise. If they're saying revenues are off the table, it's very hard to find reasonableness." He says that Republicans, with their "say-no culture," have been "gridlocking this place more than I've ever seen."
It should be noted that it's not always just Republicans disappointing Kerry. Many of his fellow Democrats abandoned him on the environment/energy bill, and the Obama administration has failed him as well, not least on the promise to close Guantánamo Bay prison.
Yet Kerry remains optimistic about both the debt committee and the Build Act — the infrastructure-bank proposal he introduced with Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, and which was adopted as part of Obama's new jobs plan.
"I think something has happened since [the environment and New START episodes] — it's called the default debacle, and the reaction of the markets to it," Kerry says. "If people can't read the tea leaves out of that, they just can't at all."
ABOVE THE FRAY
That willingness to keep trying, his earnestness and intensity, are just an inherent part of Kerry's character, say those who know him. It dates to his upbringing — his father was a foreign-service officer, his mother served as a wartime nurse — and, of course, his Vietnam career.
It helps explain why he keeps volunteering, and why he increasingly gets called on. Not only is he virtually immune from re-election worries — after dispatching William Weld by eight points in 1996, he has gone essentially unchallenged — but he is willing, when he thinks it's necessary, to look to the greater good over personal interest.